The Nobel prize-winning novelist Pearl Buck was the first westerner to describe the Chinese as they actually were. Burying the Bones is a superb portrait of her life

This book has been an eye-opener for me, and I think it will be for many readers. Pearl Buck is not a household name, though she was one not all that long ago. Hilary Spurling has given us a brilliant account of her life in China, the wellspring of a writing career that would produce 39 novels, and much else besides.

Buck thought she was Chinese as a child, although she was born in America in 1892, when her Presbyterian missionary father was on leave. They soon moved back to Zhengjiang, a port city on the Yangtze river in eastern China. She spoke Chinese before she spoke English. When she asked her Chinese nanny why her blond hair was being covered up, the nanny said: “It doesn’t look human, this hair.” Buck only realised she wasn’t Chinese when she was eight. The family was forced to flee her father’s missionary post in 1901 and seek shelter in Shanghai: the Boxer Rebellion had erupted, unleashing all the hatred of foreigners who had usurped the country after the Opium wars. More conflicts and calamities followed: famine, the abdication of the Last Emperor, and the consequent fighting for power between warlords, nationalists and communists. And all around her, she saw poverty and death.

The family lived for a time opposite a brothel because it was cheap. Four of her siblings died of disease one after another. The first bones she buried were the tiny ones she found, of female babies unwanted by their parents; it was a child’s game to put them in burial mounds and decorate them with pebbles and flowers. Later, bones, body parts and corpses became commonplace. If there is a Dickensian sprawl in her fiction, this is where it comes from.

But it was with her first husband, also a missionary, and an agricultural scientist, that she plunged deep into Chinese village life, trying to convert but also to understand the core of Chinese society. The experience inspired The Good Earth, the first part of a trilogy that sold millions of copies in the west and was turned into a Hollywood film, soon winning her the Pulitzer prize, and in 1938 the Nobel prize.

I knew little about Buck during my education in China, even when I majored in English literature. She was not on our curriculum, not on the reading list, not in the bookshops. She was criticised by the nationalists in her day, by the communists, and by Chinese intellectuals. The first said she only portrayed the bad, primitive and ugly side of China. The communists resented her failure to sympathise with their cause as the hope for China – revolutionaries played little part in her trilogy or anywhere else. The intellectuals, even Lu Xun, our most famous 20th-century writer, were arrogant enough to say the best writing on China had to be by the Chinese – she was just “an American woman missionary who happens to have grown up in China”.

The loss was ours. I believe she understood China as well as anyone could – “the people I knew as I knew myself”, she wrote. She was as puzzled by the Virgin birth as the Chinese, who “had no sympathy for Mary, and felt sorry for Joseph”: they thought Joseph was a cuckold. In fact, Buck was the first western writer to describe ordinary Chinese as they really were, with warmth and depth. China owes her a considerable debt. One should remember the western stereotype of the Chinese that prevailed before her – unbelievably strange and dangerously cunning, like Sax Rohmer’s Fu Manchu. The characters that stand out in her writing are honest, strong, simple, kind, even noble.

Buck humanised the Chinese, and as the Nobel committee put it, opened “a faraway and foreign world to deeper human insight and sympathy within our western sphere – a grand and difficult task”. Despite the grim realities she lived through, she was able to see China “as the inevitable future leader of Asia, and as a monumental force in herself with her unmeasured resources, both human and material”. China would “exert a tremendous influence upon the future of the world”.

It was in the ordinary people like Wang Lung of The Good Earth that Buck put her hope, not communism, nor the Christianity preached by her excoriatingly zealous father. “We are no better than anyone else, any of us,” she wrote.

Her sadness is that when she was in China, she hated her life and all the misery around her; but after she left Nanjing for America in 1934 to care for her disabled daughter, she was never allowed to return, and gradually lost all the energy, the anger and emotion that fired her work. She never felt at home in America, a land she did not know well, a people whose idiom and thoughts and behaviour were alien to her. The dislocation haunted her. She threw herself into writing, supported by her second husband, Richard Walsh, her publisher, who discovered her and then became her anchor. Her life unravelled after his sudden death in 1960. She slowly gave up campaigning for China and racial tolerance, and abandoned the six children she had adopted. Her last days resembled those of the Dowager Empress Cixi, the heroine of her Imperial Woman, living in isolation in Vermont with a younger man and his hangers-on. She was deeply hurt when the Chinese rejected her request to accompany Nixon on his historic visit in 1972, and she died the following year.

Hilary Spurling has drawn a fine portrait. She is a terrific storyteller, bringing us vividly into Buck’s world, and keeping up the pace, unveiling like a good detective the individuals who were models for her prolific fiction. Having aroused our interest in Buck’s writing, though, she makes you wish there were more quotes from Buck’s work; and I found the inconsistent transliteration of Chinese names quite confusing. But these are very minor peeves. Spurling should be applauded for bringing this remarkable woman back to us. We could do with another Pearl Buck for the China of today. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds